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Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies are Bad?

“Christian movies are cheesy and sentimentalist!” News flash: many of the filmmakers already agree.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 11, 2019 | 3 comments

Not long ago, I started putting together a little theory about Christian creators of movies.1

I wanted to challenge myself, and other “cheesy Christian movie” critics, to reexamine our motives. So I asked myself: Do Christian movie creators live in their own sentimentalist worlds? Don’t they at least know when their movies are cheesy and sentimentalist? And if they know, do they care?

Christian creators don’t like cheesy movies either.

My theory went something like this:

First, a lot of Christian movies are sentimentalist, poorly made shlock.2

Second, we have plenty of articles and videos pointing this out.

Third, most of these Christian movie-makers are aware of these criticisms.

Therefore:

Option 1: Most Christian movie-makers already know they’re making cheesy movies.

  • Corollary A: They’re in on the joke and they’re okay with this. They may even laugh about corny lines between takes. (One can easily imagine the makers and stars of Hallmark Christmas movies do this. Surely at least some of them, between takes, practice the same either-you-laugh-or-you-cry sanity checks.)
  • Corollary B: They know that they’re following a formula, to be (mostly) rewarded by audience support. And they’re at peace with that. In fact, they have matured beyond sentimentalist, Art expectations. They no longer work with the illusion that faith-based audiences would reward more complex stories. Unlike some of us Christian movie critics, they have chosen to live in the real world.

Option 2: The makers of cheesy, sentimentalist Christian movies are absolutely guileless. They haven’t read the criticism. Or they don’t regard it much. But even before that, they never would have a clue how their stories come across. They live in a “world” where all the sentimentality in their films—happy white people, miraculously cured children, household pets that never vomit on the Christmas ham— is utterly, sincerely real to them.

My challenge comes down to this: would either of those options really be so bad? Even option 2?

Honestly, shouldn’t we secretly want to be as innocent as a person who falls under option 2? (If not, then I’d worry about our souls a little bit. Wanting not to be this innocent, at least in theory, is the same sort of impulse that led to stealing forbidden fruit.)

Christian creators live in the real world, too.

But more likely, I choose option 1. I believe Christian movie-makers aren’t stupid individuals.

They live in the real world. They have seen Christian movies. Some of them even cringe. But then, for whatever reason, the majority of them go on to make similar movies. They make movies that plenty of folks (critics and Christians alike) see as cringe-inducing.

We could call them all sell-outs. Or we could imply that if they were real Artists, they wouldn’t cave to the plebes like this.

But let’s be charitable. And let’s not sentimentalize the art of filmmaking or its limitations: talent, time, audience demand, budget.

Plot twist: Many Christians want to make great non-cheesy movies, but then they face reality.

Alex Kendrick: ‘Is this the best we’ve got?’

This isn’t just my theory. If you actually read, listen, or watch the behind-the-scenes material with Christian filmmakers, you can see what they want. You can also see that they want to improve their craft, to grow the genre. They’re often not content just to make a movie during which Baptist grandmothers will fall asleep in the theater.

Exhibit A is Alex Kendrick.

He’s half of the filmmaking duo behind Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), War Room (2015), and the upcoming Overcomer (2019). He also recently appeared on the new “Say Goodnight Kevin” podcast, hosted by Kevin McCreary. Said podcast spins off McCreary’s popular YouTube movie review channel. There, McCreary delightfuly roasts Christian movies and Churchian movies.3 This include the brothers Kendricks’ repertoire. Which McCreary roasted.

Then McCreary began meeting Christian filmmakers. Including Alex Kendrick. I began to wonder: what’s going on?

(Also, let’s note that I’m a sucker for the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons where cat and mouse form a team-up.)

Soon after, McCreary released a video in which he, voluntarily, backed off his harsher speculative criticism of the Kendricks. That impressed me, not because I disagreed with the criticism, but because motives matter. Sure, it’s fun to roast silly or cheesy movies (Christian-made and otherwise). But the moment you start truly, actively hoping certain movies won’t improve, so you can go on roasting them, that’s when you are listening too closely to Uncle Screwtape.

But now, even better, McCreary has actually debuted his podcast with a full-length interview with Alex Kendrick. The podcast’s video preview arrived yesterday.

Kendrick explains how he, also, saw several older Christian end-times-themed movies. He names the 1970s Thief in the Night series, and the direct-to-VHS Cloud Ten apocalypse movies of the late 1990s/early 2000s. “Is this the best we’ve got?” Kendrick asked himself.

He later received $20,000 to make his own movie (the independent project Flywheel in 2003).

Apparently that project required a creativity-breaking filming and editing process. When he finally saw the edited product, he groaned.

“And I realized, ‘I have done the very thing I’ve made fun of,'” Kendrick said.

If you’ve ever critiqued Christian movies from a safe distance, listen to this podcast. It will help us avoid over-sheltered, sentimentalist expectations about “what Christians-making-movies should be.” It will help us consider the real constraints on these attempts.

This interview is also a fantastic exercise in mutual charity and firm convictions—and willingness to face one’s (friendly) critics.

Yes, Christian filmmakers are aware of the cheese

McCreary himself has gotten closer to the industry thanks to his reviews and work with Christian Cinema. He says Kendrick’s view isn’t an exception. Plenty of other Christian filmmakers know Christian movies can be cheesy. Some know their own movies have been cheesy.

“People have been more self-aware than I expected,” McCreary said.

Yes, super-fans, that’s Brett Dalton, last seen hailing Hydra as Grant Ward on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

This doesn’t surprise me. Plenty of indie Christian-made movies I’ve seen come from people who’d be first to acknowledge the genre’s cheesiness. For example, the the makers of 2017’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone partnered with The Babylon Bee for a little self-deprecating jab at the whole Christian movie industry. Their headline: “Holy Spirit Empowers Man to Make it Through Christian Movie.”

Alas, Gavin Stone dropped quickly. But I appreciated the film’s self-awareness about goofy Christian behavior. This is kind of culture that is best parodied affectionately and from the inside. Even more, I appreciate director Dallas Jenkins’s openness about that failure.

Jenkins has moved on. In fact, he’s broken records raising funds for a new streaming drama about the life of Jesus.

Guess what—Christian filmmakers want to get better.

Plenty of existing movies, such as Risen, The Case for Christ, and Paul, Apostle of Christ, are already better.

But what matters is trajectory. Maybe some directors have “sold out.” They’re happy just making Hallmark-style movies that end in altar calls. They’ll do this forever. These Christian directors, however, are not content. They want to improve. They likely will improve.

And to reach this goal, some of them will even face their giant critics.

To see these creative and even inspirational examples, maybe I can put up with a little onscreen cheese from Christian creators. For now.

  1. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll use the usual definition people use when they say “Christian movies,” i.e., “movies made for the evangelical market.” I prefer the adjective Christian to refer to individuals only. Using my preferred definition, “Christian movie” would mean any kind of movie made by a Christian.
  2. But as I explore in yesterday’s article, not all Christian movies are terrible. Some are good or very good films. And many of their creators, including in the relatively new “Christian social drama” genre, are improving their craft.
  3. I would put McCreary’s two recently roasted “cute talking dog saves Christmas” cheesemobiles (this one, and this one) in this category of “Churchian” movies.

Christian Movies Started Terrible, But Can Improve Like Any Other Genre

All Christian movies are terrible, right? Wrong. Let’s not be so naive and insular about these films.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 10, 2019 | 4 comments

I’ve a brilliant idea: let’s go on the internet and write an article—yes!—an article about why Christian movies are terrible.

It’ll be a scathing criticism for evangelicals everywhere!

First, here’s my disclaimer. (This is per article 11, section 81b of the Charter of Young Christian Popular Culture Web Writing.) I certainly agree that plenty of Christian movies are cheesy and doctrinally shallow. Equally worse, they’re often stunted in their thematic content. My pedigree is fairly established on this topic.1

But increasingly, such “hot takes,” which list all the reasons Christian movies suck, have begun to ring repetitive. An article like Jared C. Wilson’s most recent “Why Christian Movies Are So Terrible” offers valid criticisms—if it had been written in 2013.

Why do I make this claim?

Have all Christian movies suddenly gotten amazing?

Are they taking mass audiences by storm and charming the critics?

No.

But it’s simply no longer accurate to claim Christian movies are all terrible. Here are three reasons why.

1. Some newer Christian movies are really good.

Joseph Fiennes portrays Roban tribune Clavius in <em>Risen</em> (2016).

Joseph Fiennes portrays Roman tribune Clavius in Risen (2016).

My favorite recent Christian movies are Risen (2016; my review is here) and The Case for Christ (2017). Interestingly, both of these address the same theme: the resurrection of Jesus. Even better, they’re both simple yet well-made stories. Their creators do what they set out to do, albeit in two different genres. My “Cheesy Christian” detector, during each film, remained pleasantly silent.

The same is true of an older Christian movie, Amazing Grace (2006), a drama based on the abolition activism of William Wilberforce. We all seem to have just forgotten this gem. But it was well-made, solidly gospel-based, and starred Ioan Gruffudd (as Wilberforce), Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, and even the Benedict Cumberbatch.

A few other recent films have approached this goal of excellence, even if they failed to reach it.

For example, I was fond of the general direction, and a few portions, of Dallas Jenkins’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (2017). 2

Last year, my wife and I really enjoyed Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018). And by all accounts, last year’s I Can Only Imagine and God’s Not Dead 3 at least tried to take the contemporary-Christian genre in some new directions.

As Scott Kelly notes in his excellent article “Are Christian Movies Still Terrible?“:

While my criticisms about “Christian film” have been quite sharp and damning in the past, I have seen such improvement in this subgenre in just the last two years that I’ve been a bit shocked. I don’t think I’m getting soft on these movies, but I’m also not finding myself continually frustrated as these films release. Some of them I quite enjoy and even have in my disc collection. Some of them I’ve felt confident enough to recommend to fellow Christians, knowing there isn’t an enormous amount of bad theology, gratuitous nationalism, or juvenile artistic decisions in the work.

Did these films win mainstream critical acclaim? No. But at this point, I’m not expecting critical acclaim—not for a genre still in its infancy. (More on this below in point 3.)

Two good Christian movies: Risen and The Case for Christ

Two good Christian movies: Risen (2016) and The Case for Christ (2017)

2. Most of Christian movie-dom represents a distinct genre.

For this point, I’m limiting Christian movies to the dominant genre: stories set among contemporary churchgoers.

(In other words, we’re not talking about biblical drama, starring mainly the Bible’s central characters, or biblical fiction like Risen.)

Christian movie reviewer Tyler Smith believes this genre is distinct and classifiable. He calls it “Christian social drama.” That’s as good a name as any. And so far, movie critics, Christian and otherwise, seem not to recognize that we’re dealing with an entirely distinct genre. Smith compares this to an earlier genre, like film noir. He suggests that just as these genre films started simpler, and even cheesy or pulpy, so Christian social drama movies could develop and become more complex in the future.

3. Christian social drama is still early in development.

Again, let’s stick with Christian social drama as a genre. (This includes the Sherwood Pictures films, God’s Not Dead, I Can Only Imagine, and all those movies where upper-middle-class blond children are miraculously healed.)

Sometime later I may expand on this short simile. Compare today’s Christian social drama movies with early superhero black-and-white movie serials. This may illustrate just how early genres, popular and otherwise, start off ridiculous. Then, as new creators who’ve grown up to appreciate yet critique these movies arrive on the scene, the genre gets more complex. New creators take what’s basic about the genre, then challenge it with new stories.

Of course, a creator does this best if he or she wisely respects and shows affection for the simpler genre stories that have come before.

Also of course: one could argue that most of today’s cinematic superhero stories haven’t really matured.3

But the point is that today’s Marvel/DC/any superhero films are worlds better than their early 1940s attempts, according to this genre’s own rules and expectations.

Similarly, imagine the Christian social drama films of the 2040s. What maturity could they show, if they’re being made by competent, joy-driven, and well-funded creators who grew up learning to appreciate even the “cheese” of their genre’s earlier generation?

We may need to wait a few decades to find out. But until then, let’s stop being so insular, over-sheltered, and real-world-naive about our criticisms.

Let’s do like we do with any Christian: praise the good, and gently critique and correct the bad.

Above all, let’s make sure we’re loving our neighbors who like these kinds of movies. And let’s especially be sure that we rise to meet our own standard. Sure, it’s reasonable to insist that Christian movies reflect the real world. But if so, let’s make sure that we first practice living in the real world, in which real people stubbornly insist on liking all these sentimentalist, cheesy Christian movies.

Next (Friday, Jan. 11), a sequel: do Christian creators know when their movies are bad?

  1. See last spring’s Four Biblical Critiques of Christian Movies, 2015’s Christian Movies Can Show Better Sermons, and my regretfully snarky 2014 review of Left Behind movie 2.0 starring Nicolas Cage. A related critique is that many movies marketed as “Christian” are not really very Christian at all. Much of the time, they’re simplistically Churchian, a popular but arguably spinoff religion. That’s why I can reluctantly disagree with, say, my friend Mike Duran when he challenges the label of “Christian fiction.”
  2. The ultimately predictable church-set dramedy starred Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Brett Dalton. See my review at Christianity Today‘s website.
  3. Or, if certain directors try to subvert both the “ha ha fun for kids” and “grimdark and nihilistic for grown-ups” superhero genre expectations, they get maligned and slandered.

‘Star Trek’ Franchise Doesn’t Know Where to Boldly Go

Star Trek’s fans and creators seemingly can’t agree on what the sci-fi stories are really all about.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 9, 2019 | 1 comment

Yesterday fan sites lit with the reluctant rumors that Paramount had quit working on Star Trek 4.

No, not The One with the Whales, but the followup to the rebooted series (in)famously started by director J. J. Abrams.

Quoth Deadline, in a story about something Game of Thrones, blah blah blah. It somewhat buries the real lede for Trek fans:

Earlier this year, Clarkson was the first female director to be tapped to direct a Star Trek movie when she was hired to helm the fourth feature in the current series. That project has since been shelved.

If this news proves true, I feel some sense of ambivalence mixed with disappointment.

The recent Star Trek films: flawed but promising

Unlike many fans, I rather enjoyed Abrams’ reboot/restart of the franchise in Star Trek (2009). Sure, the film clearly offered more of an “internet meme” version of Star Trek. Parts seemed designed just to make casual fans feel included. Ha ha, yep, there’s one of those green alien women like Captain Kirk was always hitting on! Guffaw! And we all know redshirts always die!

Despite this, the film injected genuine joy into this new Trek timeline. Abrams’s team clearly respected Star Trek and the public perception of Star Trek. They did not deconstruct it. Nor did they simplistically rip off a previous Trek storyline. (That is, unlike the second film, Star Trek into Darkness.)

The same positivity held true for the last film, Star Trek Beyond. Of course, some fans despise the third film. Some of these shared “good riddance” style comments to the seeming announcement about the fourth film being cancelled. But I thought Beyond surprisingly blended the fun of Star Trek (The Original Series) along with expected epic-movie scale. Even better, they found time to explore a very Trek-like question about humanity. The story asked: What happens to humans of an earlier era, “left behind” by humanity’s progress?

Star Trek Beyond also cruised around several epic-movie tropes. The last film, Star Trek Into Darkness, didn’t do this, and annoyed many fans in the process. And the film dared to linger on the ideas and wonders of a potential (yet very secular) human future. I still love the film’s introduction of the space station Yorktown, accompanied by an especially soaring musical theme by Michael Giacchino.

Rumors held that a fourth film would bring back James Kirk’s deceased father, George Kirk, via time travel. In Star Trek (2009) he was briefly played by Chris Hemsworth. (Two years later, Hemsworth found fame as Marvel superhero/god Thor.) Later, other rumors held that Kirk actor Chris Pine and Hemsworth weren’t willing to settle for the fourth Trek film’s more modest budget. They exited the project.

Then there was something else about Quentin Tarantino wanting to make a Trek movie too …

And the orbit of Star Trek: The Fourth Rebooted Movie must have kept decaying.

Isn’t Star Trek better on TV anyway?

Unlike this time two years ago, I’m also less optimistic about Star Trek‘s chances on TV.

My pessimism is based on two reasons.

First, too many vocal fans (like fans of Star Wars, the earlier DC hero films, and basically any big franchise now) clash violently over What the Franchise Truly Is. So whoever’s trying to drive the franchise can’t please anyone. “Fans” just keep wailing in the back seat about whether we’re there yet, and that other fan pushed me, and casting so-and-so is soooo stuuuupid.

Second, the original Star Trek represents a classic, secular humanist copy of an already-faded Judeo-Christian worldview. As such, the stories, goofy as they could be, had plenty of moral heart to them.

The same held true for Star Trek: The Next Generation (though it had to improve mightily after its first two seasons).

And Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains, I think, the best Star Trek series, partly because its storylines embraced other alien cultures’ religions as a challenge to Federation humanism. (In DS9, other characters challenged the Federation worldview by name, rather than the story simply assuming this worldview as the unquestioned default.)1

But now we’re several spinoffs and decades later. We’ve had enough variations on the Trek recipe. Fans have “baked in” their nostalgia for older versions until the edges are burnt. Now fans and creators will keep fighting about What Star Trek is All About.

Is it bombastic action movies based on villain revenge plots?

Or slow-moving, character-driven television drama?

Action television drama with easily identifiable good guys?

Or pop-philosophical meditations on the nature of good and evil and the human capacity for either?

To all those false-binaries, I answer “yes.” Star Trek has included, and can include, all those ideas. But the current television iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, tries at once to go all of those directions. And these expectations pull it in all four of those gravitational forces at once.

Then add another story physics-twisting anomaly: the popular “prestige TV” drive to make everything as “grimdark” as a Game of Thrones, all screams and torture, fleeting nudity, and hints of nihilism. These have (so far) ruined Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, the series’s final episode was its lowest point. A full nine-tenths of the episode featured the crew members idling about a Klingon strip club. Of course the story showed soft-porn scenes. Each crew member received the designated moment of exploitation. This was followed by ten minutes of rapid plot exposition and loose-end-tying, and then that was it. Dreadful writing. I instantly cancelled my CBS All Access subscription.

Anyway, all that nonsense represents a fifth gravitational force yanking any Star Trek story in another direction.

And the demand to add trendy themes drawn from the wildly popular religion of Sexualityism? That’s a sixth gravitational force in another direction.

Captain! The engines can’t take it.

Perhaps more than one Star Trek TV series2 will help. The nihilistic sorts can make their series, the nostalgic sorts another. I’ll err on the side of the genuinely nostalgic series, myself.

But I’m not optimistic about Star Trek‘s chances on TV either. We’re too far removed from the earlier series’ moral themes, based on a copy of a copy of a copy of something like Christianity. Our culture has also decayed so much since then. Now, even a secular humanist summons to explore the universe and evolve might sound self-righteous. After all, why “boldly go” anywhere else when we have so much to explore about ourselves right here?

  1. See my portion about Deep Space Nine in our Star Trek retrospective here at Christ and Pop Culture.
  2. This includes a series they’re making with Patrick Stewart returning as Jean-Luc Picard.

I Can’t Follow All These Popular Shows and Movies; How Do You People Do It?

I find myself feeling lost and “uncool” among all these lists about the best popular culture of 2018.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 8, 2019 | 3 comments

Not long ago, the internet was full of all those “best of” articles. This includes that favorite topic of those writers who explore popular culture stories in biblical perspective: the best TV/film/music/games/etc. of 2018.

Their lists leave me feeling very lost.

Here’s one example, from The Gospel Coalition‘s Brett McCracken. I already knew when I clicked on his article, “The Best Movies of 2018,” that I’d likely struggle just to recognize the titles. The results did not disappoint. I had not seen a single one of McCracken’s top-ten titles, and only recognized the name of a movie called First Reformed.1

I’d seen only two of his Honorable Mentions: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and, of course, Black Panther.

I might try to see Christopher Robin and certainly A Quiet Place.

But the other titles? I haven’t seen them. And some of them I hadn’t even heard of.

Several of these titles recur in a site closer to me, Christ and Pop Culture. (I’ve written there before and hope to write there again.) CAPC has been running a twelve-days-of-Christmas-style series. But, like many of the stories and songs favored by my CAPC colleagues, I struggle to keep up with all. This. Media.

Only the “Eight Worlds of Wonder” and “Ten Supers Saving” installments include stories I know well and enjoy.

The rest of them—I will either concede some level of disinterest, or feel annoyed for not being able to engage with them.

But apart from disinterest, I struggle with this thought: how in the world do folks have time for all these stories and songs and games and books and albums and beyond?

Especially movies that debut, not more accessible to streaming, but initially exclusive to theaters?

I’m not trying to be legalistic. Nor would I insinuate that movies are pre-judged worthless. Or that people ought to spend their money or time more effectively. I’m sincerely curious, and here’s why: Because I don’t even have children yet, and I can’t imagine taking this much time, not just for popular culture pursuits, but for engagement specific with That Latest Critically Acclaimed Film Everyone’s Talking About.

Previously I’ve felt uncertain about this. As if I’m missing out. As if people will judge me “uncool,” or perhaps even unequipped for cultural engagement or even evangelism.

But that’s silly. You don’t need to see all these movies, even the Critically Acclaimed ones, to participate in real life.

And you certainly don’t need to see them to be made aware of particular spiritual truths.

Anyway, I’m not a filmmaker or a full-time film critic. That’s not my creative calling. Books and magazines, and someday novels—ah, that’s more like it.

Though, to my credit(?), I have swayed a few movies’ Rotten Tomatoes scores.

Jan. 18 update: See this sequel article, in which friends of mine share how they find the time to follow these popular (or best-reviewed) films and shows.

  1. I saw the trailer for First Reformed, but the story just didn’t strike me as being very Reformed. Not a single tulip in sight. Honestly, even the highly acclaiming reviews from the Christian movie blogger set did not intrigue me.

‘Young Justice’ Fans Actually Got the Show Renewed, So Why Do Some Still Complain?

Some fans’ sense of bitter entitlement betrays the heroes we enjoy.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 7, 2019 | 1 comment

Just last week, DC superhero fans basically got the equivalent of Firefly season 2. But some of them are still unhappy.

This query requires a brief backstory.

In 2013, the animated series Young Justice was cancelled. It had focused on the “next generation” of apprentice DC heroes, such as Robin/Nightwing, Miss Martian, Superboy, Kid Flash, and Aqualad. Creators Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti had ended season 2 with a cliffhanger and tease for the mega-supervillain Darkseid. But series host Cartoon Network canned the show after toymaker Mattel said the series didn’t bring enough toy sales.

Years later, fans pressed to renew the series. I joined them, starting by following a dedicated Facebook page. Occasionally I promoted a hashtag. Once I made a popular meme that has a really, really corny inside-joke for Young Justice fans.

And incredibly, in fall 2016, Warner Bros. announced they actually would renew Young Justice.

Young Justice: Outsiders

Last Friday, the new season debuted with the title Young Justice: Outsiders. With one “catch.” (If you could even call it that.) DC had chosen not to host Young Justice season 3 on a preexisting streaming service, such as Netflix (where many fans, including myself, first found the story). Instead DC debuted the season exclusively on its own relatively new media/streaming service, DC Universe.

Plenty of fans are overjoyed with this. But plenty of fans are not at all whelmed.

Consider these negative responses to a DC Universe social-media ad:

I’ll watch it after the DC streaming service fails due to lack of content and they come around and put it back on Netflix.

Where can I pirate this ? I ain’t joining a new streaming service for one show.

The fact you have to join and pay a hell of alot of money in order to see what you want is insane. DC needs to work harder then they are now. Because right now? Many fans have lost trust.

As Robin would have said in season 1, they are not “feeling the aster.”

And as I said in reply, this negative response is just another sign: that even when sinful humans get good things, our impulse is to whine and complain.

The sense of fan entitlement here is quite terrible. We are literally getting the third season of Young Justice, an achievement almost equivalent to Firefly season 2, and y’all are complaining about DC requesting compensation for $7.99 a month. Yes. A mere $8 (especially if you wait a few months, binge the complete series, and then cancel). Or maybe at most $24 for three months (three new episodes each week), about the same cost as a TV season Blu-ray box set.

And yet folks complain just because it’s not on Netflix (a platform that simply could not contain all non-Netflix-made media, without itself needing to raise prices to compensate for that many licenses).

I think this is a sad testimony to the natural-born human failure to receive good things, like stories, with joy and gratitude.

Over the weekend, my wife and I viewed all three of season 3’s first episodes. DC has not cut any corners here. All is the same as it was, only better: animation style, voice cast, thoughtful and creative worldbuilding. We are not only whelmed, but overwhelmed, at rejoining these animated friends for their further heroic adventures.

The only difference comes with the streaming platform. Our heroes have made the leap to streaming, which allows more content leeway. But to my pleasant shock—and at least so far—the creators have only allowed slightly more explicit violence, sights of animated blood, dead bodies, and such. Nobody’s snarling in so many nasty words about how much they hate Batman. Also nobody’s getting naked. And nobody’s falling over themselves to appease/promote the religion of Sexualityism.1

Instead, we’ve simply rejoined apprentice heroes who want to do the right thing, for the sake of joy in heroism and justice itself.

Would that all their fans would follow their example.

  1. In fact, one key moment in the first episode shows a hero identifying one fallen victim, a mind-controlled villain, as an Earth female, age fourteen. This simple moment proved a crucial element to the story. And this moment struck me as just another small example of how Sexualityism would have ruined it with all its bizarre (and frequently, rightfully parodied) insistence on self-identity and all that nonsense.

The ‘Widow’s Mite’: It Might Not Mean What You Think it Means

The widow of Luke 21 who “gave all she had” isn’t an inspiration. She’s a tragedy.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 4, 2019 | 2 comments

Recently, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said some, er, interesting things about President Donald Trump. But I shan’t even address that here. Rather, I’m intrigued by the frequent rebuttals to Falwell that rely on a particular interpretation of the “widow’s mite” biblical account.

Does this biblical account really mean what we think it means?

The lesson(?) of the widow

The “widow’s mite” account comes from a short “side story” in Luke 21: 1–4:

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Upon hearing this story, many Christians will react as if we’ve just heard the first notes of a familiar tune. We’ll hum along with the rest in our memory. We’ll say things like this Relevant website article said (author uncredited):

At a different point in the interview, he said that Trump’s “business acumen” was the reason he supported him. He also touted his views on the importance of “free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth,” saying, “A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.”

Ironically, Jesus confronted this very logic in the Gospel. The Bible tells of the story of people giving charitably to the treasury.

The writer is careful only to describe the account and let readers “fill in” the moral.

Presumably, this moral is something like: Jesus views a heartfelt “small” gift as more meaningful than a less-heartfelt “large” gift. Which would (again, presumably) contradicts Falwell Jr.’s statement.1

Made-up moralizing

But re-read the four verses. Notice what’s lacking in this account.

What’s lacking is any specific statement or application by Jesus, the apostles, or the narrator of Luke’s gospel.

Jesus doesn’t make a judgment. He doesn’t praise the widow or condemn her. He only makes a statement of cold, hard fact.

Pastor John MacArthur, in this 2007 sermon, surveys the passage’s lack of saying what Christians often read into it:

Jesus never made any of those points: Jesus never said anything about what’s left behind, what percentage, what attitude, or do the same and give everything. He didn’t.

Jesus never makes any of those points.

He does not say the rich gave relatively too little; they had too much left over. He doesn’t say the rich gave too low a percent. He doesn’t say the widow gave the right amount. He doesn’t say the rich had a bad attitude and the widow had a good attitude, or good spirit. He doesn’t say that.

In fact, He doesn’t say anything about their giving except that she gave more than everybody. He doesn’t say why or with what attitude, or whether she should have, or shouldn’t have, or they should have, or shouldn’t have.

Her outward action is all that you see. It is no more or less good, bad, indifferent, humble, proud, selfish, unselfish than anybody else’s act. There is no judgment made on her act as to its true character. There is nothing said about her attitude or her spirit. She could be acting out of devotion. She could be acting out of love. She could be acting out of guilt. She could be acting out of fear. We don’t know because Jesus doesn’t say anything.2

With that in mind, it’s rather risky for Christians to proceed as if we know the moral of the “good, charitable widow gave all she had” account. At worst, we really don’t know why Jesus drew attention to this widow’s startling act.

John MacArthur: this widow was abused

But MacArthur goes on to make make convincing argument about Jesus’s purpose. He says Jesus actually meant to show that this widow was entrapped, and by an abusive governmental/religious system that exploited the poor!

This is fairly clear to see when you read the gospel sections immediately before and following Luke 21: 1–4.

Right after Jesus observes the widow, he foretells the Temple’s destruction (Luke 21, verse 5 and onward). This is hardly a natural followup to praising the charitable recipient of a heartfelt gift—to prophesy its doom!

But even more telling, just before this account, in Luke 20: 45–47, Jesus specifically warns against legalistic, authoritarian scribes. Jesus says that, among their other sins, they “devour widows’ houses” (verse 47). After such a warning, it would make no sense for Jesus to suddenly switch themes. Why would Jesus turn around to comment about this good widow who gave all she owns to support this (suddenly good?) religious cause?

Back to MacArthur’s sermon transcript from Grace to You:

How would you feel? You’re a person that loves the Lord, you’re a person that loves your brother and cares about people and cares about their needs. How would you feel if you saw a destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy her food for her next meal give those two coins to a religious system? How would you feel? You would say, “Something is wrong with that system when that system takes the last two coins out of a widow’s hand.” That’s what you would say and you would be right to say that. Giving your last two coins to a false religious system! How would you feel if you saw a destitute, impoverished person give to her religion her last hope for life to go home perhaps and die? You’d be sick. You’d feel terrible. You would be repulsed. Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion. What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor victimized lady. It’s tragic, painful. And I think that’s exactly how Jesus saw it, exactly.3

Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion.

— John MacArthur

Disclosure: I sometimes disagree with MacArthur’s teaching or tone. But here, MacArthur is rightfully and clearly concerned with false religious leaders or systems that prey on the poor. Then as now, such religious leaders insist the poor “give all they have,” only to pad the pulpits of false teachers.

The system that had developed in Judaism abused poor people. And it abused it on a spiritual…abused them on a spiritual level. Anyone who withholds money from needy parents in order to give it to God is in direct disobedience to God and is dishonoring God’s Word and substituting a man-made tradition for God’s Word. Basic human needs come first with God before religious offerings.

Listen, God’s law was never given to impoverish people, but to help them. Man was not made for the law but the law was made for man.

We would conclude that this woman was part of a system that took the last two cents out of her hand on the pretense that this was necessary to please God, to purchase her salvation and to bring her blessing. She was manipulated by a religious system that was corrupt. This is not an illustration of heartfelt, sacrificial giving that pleases the Lord, this is not a model for all of us to follow. Jesus never expects that, in fact He told a servant who had very little, you should have put your money in the bank and earned interest because you need that to meet your own physical needs.4

I think John MacArthur is right. Christians have better biblical texts to support cheerful or sacrificial giving. We need to stop praising the poor widow of Luke 21: 1–4. Instead, we must sympathize with her, and get righteously angry with her religious abusers. Her account is not an inspiration. It’s a tragedy.

  1. Falwell’s statement, if quoted here accurately, is easily exposed as nonsense. But my purpose here isn’t to critique him. Plenty of others are doing that.
  2. John MacArthur, “Abusing the Poor” sermon transcript, Sept. 2, 2007, GracetoYou.org. I added a few paragraph breaks for clarity.
  3. Ibid (emphases added).
  4. Ibid (paragraph breaks added).

People Keep Finding SpecFaith By Searching for ‘Spells’

Why are these two SpecFaith articles about “magic spells” so popular?
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 3, 2019 | No comments

Two of the most popular 2018 articles on Speculative Faith share a surprising connection.

It’s the word “spells.”

The first popular piece is my article, Six Christian White Magic Spells Worse Than Fantasy Magic. This article actually dates back to 2016, but apparently found some staying power. Of course, this article is more of a primer on the concept that some Christians fall into “white magic” spell-like responses to world. These include (but are not limited to) “white magic” practices, such as:

  1. “Health and wealth” prosperity
  2. Magic circles, symbols, and verse
  3. Personal guidance divination
  4. Sorcerous “spiritual warfare”
  5. Romance prosperity gospel
  6. “If only”: prayer and programs

The second popular piece is a more-recent article, J. K. Rowling’s Progressivist Spells are Backfiring. Apart from the word “spells,” that article’s topic is unrelated. But now that the second Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald has limped out of theaters, this article seems a bit prescient. It seems fans really were brewing up backlash and discontent in response to Rowling’s wizarding world.

So why are these two articles so popular?

I’m not sure. But I am concerned about recent headlines, such as “millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.”1 I hope that, in an occult-crazed culture, these two articles are not popular because people are actually searching for “Christian white magic” or Progressivist spells. To try out.

By the way, for any aspiring “witches” out there who found this article, Al Mohler offers these reminders:

… Secularism is an unstable condition. The secular space is going to be filled by some other space. It’s going to be an explicitly religious space. But that Christian space, that has become in some in cases a secular space, is now transformed, in so many cases, into a modern pagan space.2

We need to understand where we fit in the universe where we fit in the cosmos. Now here we must understand that the longing that leads so many people to astrology is not only not going to be met by witchcraft, the occult, astrology or any semblance thereof, but we also have to go further and say it will only be found within authentic biblical Christianity. The only worldview capable of explaining why the cosmos exists and what indeed our part is within it. But it certainly is true that within every heart is a desire to try to place ourselves in the context to use those words again of thousands of years of history and the universe. That is exactly what we all need.3

  1. Technically, the comparison is a false one. Witchcraft and astrology are both manifestations of the world’s leading religion, self-worship. Otherwise, they might be manifestations of the worship of actual evil spiritual powers.
  2. Al Mohler, “The Briefing” podcast, Oct. 31, 2018.
  3. Al Mohler, “The Briefing” podcast, Dec. 4, 2017. Mohler is responding to an apparently older version of the “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology” article.

Aquaman Isn’t Simply ‘Big Dumb Fun,’ So Why Do Critics Claim It Is?

Aquaman is big, but it’s not dumb, and it’s fantastically sincere, not “cheesy.”
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 2, 2019 | 3 comments

Last night my wife and I re-viewed DC’s latest superhero film, Aquaman.

If I write a review, I’ll likely describe the film as a subversively positive, fun, yet sincere journey into an underwater fairy tale.

But I won’t describe the movie as “(big) dumb fun”1 or “cheesy.”2 As have many Aquaman viewers, who are (at least) trying to praise the movie.

Yes, the movie features plenty of splash and spectacle. It revels in Arthur Curry’s (Jason Mamoa) over-the-top personality. It pauses for lengthy explanations of this fantastic world and backstory. Heroes and villains bellow out their motivations as if they were in an anime.

Director James Wan also constantly draws your attention to surprise! explosions. He loves to show in-your-face, meme-worthy visuals. These include dragon-esque sea horses, armies of crab men, and sharks clad in Atlantean armor. Parts of the film also seem custom-designed to challenge the old “Aquaman has lame powers” pop-culture mythology.

Aquaman is big, but it’s not dumb.

It’s fun. And, admittedly, it’s more accessible to audiences than the earlier DC films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.3

But Aquaman is not “cheesy.”

Define ‘cheesy’

Most people, when they hear “cheesy,” think about low quality. They think of poorly made Christian movies, in which characters don’t speak or act like they’re in any place resembling the real world. Or they think of formulaic Hallmark movies for Christmastime.

Aquaman doesn’t qualify for any of those. The movie is well-made and makes its aesthetic choices by design, not by accident. And where it follows any “formula,” this is simply the classic hero’s journey played underwater.

Only if you believe the superhero genre is intrinsically cheesy would you apply this label to Aquaman. But then, why apply the label at all?

Which also leads to my question of why people, with good intentions, call Aquaman “(big) dumb fun” or “cheesy.”

We can’t speculate on motives. Nor would I endorse any kind of fan-rivalry, “Marvel vs. DC” style of approach here.

Instead, I can’t help but speculate that certain critics, even while they mean well, associate sincerity with “cheese.” Aquaman is nothing if not sincere, and, like Wonder Woman, Batman v Superman, and Man of Steel, there’s not a drop of real cynicism in its story.4

Unabashed sincerity does not equal ‘cheesiness’

Interestingly enough, all three leading DC creators have defended their sincere approach. Of these, only Zack Snyder has taken an overtly “nobledark” approach, which deconstructed two DC heroes (Superman and Batman) on the way to a brighter future. Since then, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and Aquaman‘s James Wan have made good on that (often ignored) promise. They share Snyder’s sincere approach, yet they get to rebuild their stars as flawed yet truly good, non-subverted heroine and hero.

This isn’t speculation about the creators’ intentions. Wan himself states this was his approach. He seems to dislike even backhanded praise that his stories are “cheesy”:

I tell people, go all the way back and look at my horror film. Go look at The Conjuring, right? I’m not afraid to go romantic and sentimental with my characters, Ed and Lorraine have such a sentimental relationship. Especially for a movie like this, that is a classic story about a sailor who falls in love with a mermaid, everything about it has such a romantic, nautical theme to it, I felt like it was the right thing or us to do.

And of course, Steven Spielberg is one of my idols, and he’s one guy who is not afraid to be sentimental in his films. So I thought you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I don’t care if people think it’s cheesy or too sentimental. It is who I am, and that’s the only way I know how to make my films: be true to myself.5

But it’s actually Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins who says it best. When that film released, a New York Times reporter asked Jenkins, “This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?” Jenkins’ reply strikes exactly the joyous, even “swashbuckling” tone that any Christian ought to have when defending sincerity and virtue in our stories:

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.6

  1. See this example review.
  2. See this example from The Hollywood Reporter, although this writer (I think rightly) wants to define the term positively.
  3. See our Badfan v Superman series on Speculative Faith for some exploration of negative fan myths about those films.
  4. Some readers may object to my insistence that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are actually not cynical. But I continue to make this defense. The common line that these stories are “grim and gritty” simply ignores the originally planned, positive direction to which both these films was always meant to lead. The meta-storyline, as originally envisioned by director Zack Snyder, is not “grimdark,” but rather, “nobledark.” Of course, this vision isn’t to every fan’s liking, and our responses can be subjective. I simply contend that we ought to be more honest about the films’ intentions, and not slander any creators. On this I may say more in a future story.
  5. Andrew Dyce, “Aquaman Director Doesn’t Care If It Feels ‘Cheesy’,” Dec. 28, 2018, ScreenRant.com.
  6. Cara Buckley, “The Woman Behind Wonder Woman,” New York Times, June 1, 2017.

Tim Keller: Jesus versus the ‘Religious People’?

Tim Keller seems to repeat the old myth that the Pharisees were “Bible believers.”
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 1, 2019 | 1 comment

On first reading of this recent Facebook post from Tim Keller, well, I’m not sure I can agree with him.

Tim Keller (accidentally?) reinforces the old myth that the Pharisees and Sadducees were “Bible believers.”

No, they weren’t.

Jesus constantly called the Pharisees to task for not believing the Old Testament, which pointed to Himself as its fulfillment.

Also, it’s tiresome to hear an (accidental?) “irreligious versus religious” people mantra.

In fact, everyone is religious in some way.

Jesus’s ministry attracted conservative Jews (such as many of his disciples, Nicodemus, and the apostle Paul). He also attracted heathens and Gentiles.

Similarly, faithful Christians’ ministry today can attract pagans, atheists, and repentant conservative traditionalists.

And in either case, it does not matter which “percentage” (anecdotally or measured) of “irreligious versus religious” people accept the gospel.

What happens if anyone says “this gospel message is not for you, because you’re too bad for it”–about any group? Including progressivists, liberals, conservatives, traditionalists, nationalists, Trump voters, Hillary voters?

Well, that can quickly lead us to an evangelism Dark Side.

I think Tim Keller himself knows this. After all, Keller has been the most popular voice I’ve seen reminding us that even “anti-legalism” can turn into legalism. God bless him for it.

So if anything, this just goes to illustrate the limits of sharing quick doctrine-oriented thoughts on the internet.

That’s a risk I plan to keep in mind this new year.

I’ve Launched My Own Web Portal

With all this expected growth in Christian fantasy, I’m going to need a bigger blog.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 1, 2019 | No comments

Today at Speculative Faith, I shared seven reasons I believe Christian fantasy could have an epic 2019.

These reasons include:

  1. Speculative Faith has grown fourfold.
  2. Lorehaven Magazine is finding fans.
  3. Realm Makers is training more Christian creators.
  4. Local, indie bookstores are coming back.
  5. More people are seeing social media in perspective.
  6. The Netflix-style bubble of always-on TV seems to be straining.
  7. Still, we’re getting more Christian-made fantasy adapted for TV.

Here’s how I wrapped up:

With all this news, and this expected growth, I’m going to need a bigger blog.

I believe I’ll need more space than my Tuesdays at Speculative Faith, or my quarterly Captain’s Log at Lorehaven Magazine.

Enter EStephenBurnett.com.

Subtitle: EXPLORING STORIES BIBLICALLY.

This site is yet another neighbor in the Lorehaven network, along with Speculative Faith. This will be my author portal. I’ll share updates about Lorehaven and my other projects. I’ll also share shorter articles about current events and Christian fantasy.

My first article reflects my first Captain’s Log for the spring 2018 Lorehaven issue.